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2018 will see overdue City Council race
First time for candidates to run in separate districts
This map of Ceres shows the division of City Council districts that go into effect this year for the first time ever. - photo by Courtesy of the city of Ceres

2018 will be a historic year for Ceres politics. This November's election for Ceres City Council will be conducted on a district-by-district basis. It's also the first year of a shift of the election cycle.

For the past 100 years, members of the City Council have been elected on at-large basis. In other words, all candidates who threw their hat in the ring competed for the open spots with the top vote-getters winning seats. Now, candidates are only allowed to run for an open seat for the district in which they reside. The Ceres City Council allowed the voters to decide on district elections in fear of an expensive legal challenge to at-large elections which have typically been filed by minority advocate groups. City leaders were not especially receptive to the idea of council districts but agreed to the 2015 Measure. Voters approved the measure by a margin of 1,079 votes (66.28 percent) to 549 votes (33.72 percent).

Representatives of the Latino Community Roundtable (LCR) approached the council in 2013 asking the city to move to district elections, citing how Modesto fought the change and spent $2 million in fees of taxpayers' money doing so. LCR said it was not interested in suing Ceres to make the change. However, a group called the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights forced the Ceres Unified School District to go to district elections in 2009 after threats of being sued under the California Voting Rights Act. The nonprofit advocacy group had filed a lawsuit on behalf of Latino voters, charging that the district's at-large method of election was racially polarizing and violated the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA).

Minority groups like LCR feel that district elections would make it easier for minority candidates to be elected, stating that concentrations of minority voters could be outnumbered in at-large districts controlled by non-minority voters.

How district elections affect politics in Ceres remains uncertain. It's possible that some races could be crowded while others are sparely populated by candidates. But because districts contain roughly 75 percent fewer voters than the entire city limits includes, council races could get considerably less expensive.

Mayor Chris Vierra has been critical of district elections, noting that it's possible now that 400 to 500 voters could elect a person making decisions for 47,0000 residents.

The change comes at a time when another state law mandates that municipal elections be timed with gubernatorial and/or presidential elections to boost voter turnout.

Council seats up for grabs this year are District 1 occupied by Ken Lane and District 2 occupied by Linda Ryno.

Lane has stated he will not seek re-election.

Both terms were originally scheduled to end in November 2017 but the council lengthened the terms by one year to make them coincide with this year's governor's race.

Councilman Ken Lane's District #1 consists mostly of the northwest section of Ceres west of Moffet Road. The district includes everything north of Evans Road, everything north of Caswell Avenue and a finger that reaches down to Whitmore Avenue to take in Mary Avenue.

Other districts are District 3, now occupied by Bret Durossette, which covers northeast Ceres, including areas east of Moffet Road as well as Eastgate; and District 4, now occupied by Mike Kline, which covers a block around Smyrna Park southward to Highway 99 and leaping across the freeway to take some areas of southwest Ceres, including Marazzi Lane, Sungate Drive and Daisy Tree.

The terms of Councilmembers Bret Durossette and Mike Kline were set to expire November 2019, which is considered an off-year for elections. Adding a year to the terms mean they would be before voters until November 2020, a presidential election year.

Only the office of mayor will continue to be elected on an at-large basis. That seat is up for grabs in 2020.

SB 415, signed into law on Sept. 1, 2015 by Gov. Jerry Brown, is designed to get municipal elections away from "off year" election cycles, in other words, when not packaged with an election for governor or president. State lawmakers have noted that many voters won't turn out to vote if only local races are on the ballot so the law requires cities to come up with a transition plan by Jan. 1, 2018 and implemented by November 2022. Ceres wasted no time in complying.

SB 415 specifically dictates that cities cannot hold an election in an off-year if the historical trend of voter turnout is more than 25 percent less than major election years. Data backs the state's claim that voter turnout can be extremely low in off-year elections. In November 2015, for example, voter turnout in Ceres was at a dismal 15.93 percent but it more than doubled to 33.92 percent in November 2014 when Californians voted for statewide offices. During the presidential election of 2008, voter turnout in Ceres was even higher at 64.62 percent. Average voter turnout over the past four statewide elections (including two presidential elections) was 51 percent in Ceres. However, average voter turnout over the past four municipal elections, held in an "off" years, was 17 percent. That puts Ceres directly under the dictates of SB 214 to modify terms.

Voter participation in lower level elections could increase by 25 to 36 percent under the new direction, concluded a study by the Public Policy Institute of California.

The Ceres Unified School District board opted to extend their next terms to comply with SB 415.

Because of the realigned terms caused by SB 214 the City Council on Monday agreed to give Mike Kline an extra year as vice mayor to coincide with the new election cycle. After Kline's term ends at the end of this year, the council will keep the vice mayor's term at two years.

Councilmember Linda Ryno is being considered to become the next vice mayor because Durossette, Lane and Kline have all rotated through terms.

Upon giving Kline the extra year, Mayor Vierra joked, "You do not get any more pay for that."